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The Last Passenger

We were saddened to hear that Melissa Mead passed away several days ago. We never met in person, but over two decades and dozens of stories, we did feel like we knew her voice, her sensability, and her deft touch with language. We are grateful for all the visions she has shared with Daily Science Fiction's readers over the years.

Please join us in honoring Melissa Mead's memory by reading this, her penultimate publication in Daily Science Fiction.

The skiff had almost forgotten its purpose. Crossing the Styx, back and forth. Or was it the Acheron? The skiff wasn't sure it mattered. The River of Pain and the River of Woe had no effect on wood that could feel neither.
Once, souls had thronged the river's banks, leaving threads of their fraying selves behind to melt into the skiff that ferried them to the Underworld.
Those tattered fragments of identity had awakened something in the skiff's timbers. An awareness, a sense of "it" and "not it," and the greater world around it.
The skiff sensed flowing water, charged with powers it couldn't understand. It sensed the banks that bounded its world. It felt the heavy tread of the old man who poled the skiff back and forth, and the faint shifting weight of passengers.
Decades passed and souls came and went, leaving scraps of themselves behind. Its sense of self broadened. It saw shapes and forms. Sounds took on meaning, became words like Sun and Earth and Friend and Family.
The old man might be Family. He was more than just a heavy tread now. Now he was Charon, strong-armed and quick-tempered. If a soul tried to enter the skiff without paying a coin, the ferryman would heave them overboard with his pole. It made the skiff feel protected. The passengers were mostly colorless, vague things. Now and then, though, someone vibrant and interesting would cross: the man draped in golden lionskin who dared to fight with Charon. The youth who played such sweet music that the very timbers of the skiff echoed with it. His sad, silent wife, who came back without him, weeping.
Now not even the pale and aimless shades came. Even those doomed to wander the shore for a century because they lacked coins for Charon had gone long ago, while the Ferryman and his craft poled from bank to empty bank.
So the skiff felt Charon's surprised jolt when he spotted the shining figure on the shore. The skiff had never known its Ferryman to be surprised. Angry, sullen, fierce, but never surprised. They poled closer.
"Hail, Hermes Psychopomp," the old man grumbled.
"Well, now there's the thing." The newcomer, a young man wearing a cap and winged sandals, stepped aboard without offering a gift, or even waiting for a nod from Charon. The sandals tickled the skiff's planking. And to the skiff's astonishment, the Ferryman just stood at rigid attention, making no move to throw the stranger overboard.
"About the psychopomp business," the youth continued, stretching his long legs on the deck and throwing an arm across the gunwale, "It's hard to be a Conductor of Souls when you've got no souls to conduct. Surely you've noticed that business has fallen off lately."
"One soul or a hundred, it's the same to me. I am the way across the rivers, and I will not leave my post."
"That's what I like about you. Dedicated. Evenhanded. Reliable to the last." The young man sat up straight, and his expression turned serious. "And trust me, Charon, you are the last."
"What do you mean?"
"Mankind has turned to new gods and new ways. They go from this world to another through gates of pearl, not across dismal rivers. They go to paradisaical gardens, not shadowed caves. The Olympians have retired to their Mount, and the world has changed to its foundations." His cheerful smile returned. "So I've come to collect you before you miss all the fun."
"You are the god of thieves and tricksters, O Messenger of Olympus. Why should I believe you?"
"Because I'm also the god of crossroads and boundaries, and we're standing on one. The very rivers of the Underworld are changing. Wait too long, and you'll simply fade to nothing, and your faithful boat here will crumble to splinters." Hermes patted the gunwale, and the skiff felt its patchwork consciousness unify and expand. It remembered being a tree, standing tall and proud in a flowered meadow, while sunlight pouring onto its leaves. It remembered the axe's bite, and Charon's first ponderous tread upon its resinous planks. The myriad souls. Charon's steady guidance. His strong hands deftly patching any crack or splinter. The way Charon never let the skiff's keel scrape in the shallows.
For the first time, the skiff felt yearning. For their journey to go on. To carry passengers together: souls and heroes and Queens of the Underworld. And irreverent young trickster gods like the one who sat grinning in its bow.
"Never had any use for Olympus," Charon grunted. "Marble and peacocks and featherbeds with everybody and their brother jumping in and out of 'em.... No. I've got a job to do."
"But you don't! That's the point. If you don't wish to go to Olympus, the whole Afterlife's wide open now. Even the Elysian Fields."
Charon grunted.
"Or the Asphodel Meadows, if you'd prefer. You can even sulk in Tartarus if you want. The point is, go somewhere, or you'll fade."
The old man grunted again, and for the first time the skiff could remember, sat down. "I swore by the Styx not to leave my post, and I remember my oaths. I won't leave my post, or my ship."
"Ship?" Hermes smiled and ran a hand along the gunwale. Something sparked and trickled through the ancient wood. "Bit of an overstatement, that."
"It does the job," said Charon. "As do I."
"Stubborn. Fine. Let me off. I can't make you come with me if you don't want to." One of the god's long-fingered hands trailed idly in the water that no shade could touch.
Charon poled for the shore without another word. Hermes, Conductor of souls, leapt out alone.
"Travel well, Ferryman," he said, and patted the skiff's side. The water trickled along the paths that the god's touch had laid. As Charon poled the skiff into the river, it saw Hermes' smiling face and felt a wrench of knowledge.
This was Acheron, bitter river of woe. Woe for the leaves and sunlight it had lost. Woe for the thought of falling to pieces. And greatest of all, woe for Charon, loyal ferryman of the strong arms, fading, alone in the darkness, to become less than the shades he had carried.
Did Charon's hand tremble on the tiller? No, the skiff realized. That was its own motion. The Trickster, the Conductor of Souls, had given the skiff the reins of its own soul.
The skiff turned and labored its way upstream. Charon's startled curses drowned out Hermes' laughter. The skiff fought its way against the currents of the Underworld, past fallen rocks and collapsed banks, until the taste of the water turned soft and soothing. Charon stood breathing hard. The skiff drove forward. The waters of the River Lethe soaked into its planks. Forgetfulness teased at its fragile new consciousness. Why was it fighting the current? It was meant to go back and forth, back and forth....
"No!" shouted Charon. "I swore by the Styx. I remember my oath. I will keep my oath!"
Ah. That was why. Charon, its constant companion, its protector. Charon's mighty self must not be allowed to fade.
Gently as a sigh, the skiff's planks parted, tumbling the ferryman into the River of Forgetting.
And Hermes was there, his winged sandals just above the water, hauling the sputtering old man onto the far shore.
"By Zeus, who pushed me? What happened?"
"Welcome to the Afterlife, Charon! You've served the gods long and well, and earned the right to a throne on Mount Olympus."
"Throne? Bah! None of that nonsense for me. Just point me to a quiet spot under a tree."
"Certainly. Right this way. Don't mind Cerberus. All three heads are quite gentle, as long as you're going this direction."
The old man paused, and rubbed his forehead. "I'm forgetting something... someone...."
"Trust me. Anybody you might want to see will be waiting in the Asphodel Meadows."
"Hmph." Charon stumped off, oblivious to the broken pile of flotsam on the shoreline.
"Ah. Just a moment," said Hermes. He reached into the pile and pulled out a piece of wood as long as his forearm. At his touch, the waters of Lethe steamed away and the former skiff remembered. Sunshine. Leaves. Souls. Stubborn, loyal Charon.
"Just the thing!" said Hermes. He held the slab out to Charon. "Here. Throw it."
"What?"
"For Cerberus. He loves to chase sticks."
"That's a plank, not a stick."
"Humor me."
Charon's mighty arm lifted the slab of wood with ease. He hurled it, and the three-headed dog leapt forward, wagging a tail as long as a serpent's as it took the plank in its jaws.
"Go on now," said Hermes, shooing it ahead. "We're coming."
The piece of wood that had been Charon's skiff didn't notice the great dog's teeth. It only felt the rush of breeze and the warmth of sunlight as Cerberus bounded ahead, carrying it into the Asphodel Meadows.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 25th, 2022


Author Comments

Writing this story has made me wonder what Charon actually DOES with those coins. There could be another story in there. Or a few.

- Melissa Mead
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